- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A new wilderness in Idaho is a presidential signature away from becoming reality.

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a bill protecting 275,000 acres in central Idaho. The U.S. House of Representatives passed similar legislation last week, meaning it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The wilderness plan cobbled together by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has been in the making for 15 years as he tried to balance the interests of ranchers, recreationists and environmental groups. He ranked it as one of his top accomplishments as a lawmaker.

“Probably the highest because I’ve worked on it longer than I have anything else,” he said by phone on Tuesday. “As an individual bill, it’s obviously up there very high. There were low times when I thought I’d never get this done.”

The plan creates three new wilderness areas in the rugged Boulder and White Cloud mountains. They are the 138-square-mile Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, the 142-square-mile White Clouds Wilderness and the 183-square-mile Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, who derailed the wilderness bill once before, this time helped push it through.

“I would say that last time he felt there needed to be more collaboration,” Simpson said. “He gave me some advice at the first of the year. I think the broad support we had for it is one of the things Jim wanted.”

Risch, in a statement Tuesday, noted that key ingredient. “Importantly, a vast and diverse coalition of the land users and preservationists came together as a result of Congressman Simpson’s work and created an Idaho solution,” he said.

Looming over the debate in recent years has been the potential of Obama designating the area, about 600,000 acres, as a national monument. Many environmental groups had been pushing for such a proclamation after years of failed wilderness attempts.

“Without the threat of a monument proclamation, I don’t think this would have happened,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and a public lands expert. “But Simpson still had to do the hard work to get it done.”

Freemuth said he didn’t see any reason why Obama wouldn’t sign the legislation to create the wilderness, though there might still be some who would prefer a national monument. “I think right now people are going to take the win and celebrate,” he said.

A number of environmental groups - Idaho Conservation League, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society - praised the Senate’s passage of the bill and Simpson’s work in statements put out Tuesday that generally followed the same theme.

“Today Idahoans can celebrate that the future of the wild Boulder-White Clouds area is secure and that its treasured lands and wildlife habitat will be preserved for future generations,” said Craig Gehrke, Idaho director with The Wilderness Society.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers also lauded the decision for the protections it gave big-game habitat.

But a wilderness designation cuts out mountain bikers from some of the most spectacular rides the state has to offer.

“It’s discouraging when you just slam the door shut,” said Bob Rosso, owner of an outdoors retail shop in Ketchum called The Elephant’s Perch. “There are some really fun trails. You can ride your bike in and cross from one side to the other and not leave an impact.”

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